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A call for more poetry activists among the laureates
In an opinion piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Julia Baird laments the relative invisibility of poet laureates among the general public. The deficiency isn’t in the public’s taste for poetry but rather the title itself, the kind of person it’s bestowed upon and what it should require of its bearer. Baird recalls the efforts of Joseph Brodsky who saw himself as a “poetry activist”and sought to place anthologies in familiar settings so the uninitiated could encounter them in daily life; Billy Collins’ memorial poem for 9/11 “The Names,” which marked an important moment in America’s history, something Baird also views as the role of a poet laureate; and Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Maxine Kuhn who “worked with young students, the African diaspora, and women.” With all the potential in the position, evidenced by these laureates and others, Baird wonders why we ask so little of our laureates and give them so little in return.
Surely poet laureates should be seen as public poets, should be paid more, should live in Washington, and be asked to write poems about our world, now. It might seem whimsical to suggest that poems matter when walls of water drown cities, when gut-wrenching tumult afflicts the Middle East, and when one in four American children depends on food stamps – but isn’t the point of poetry to help us make sense of all this upheaval? To take emotions we fumble to describe, and bake them as cakes? To say what we can’t or won’t, and to force us to remember what matters?
…Perhaps we should ask for braver choices. We should seek out those who are evangelists for words, who can remind us about the urgency and importance of writing. Countless jobs are bureaucratic, timid, and silent; poet laureates should not be among them.